Leader of the House of Commons
Lord President of the Council
8 June 2001 – 17 March 2003
Robert Finlayson “Robin” Cook (28 February 1946 – 6 August 2005) was a British Labour Partypolitician, who was the Member of Parliament (MP) for Livingston from 1983 until his death, and served in the Cabinet as Foreign Secretary from 1997 to 2001.
He studied at the University of Edinburgh before becoming a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central in 1974. In parliament he was noted for his debating ability which saw his rise through the political ranks and ultimately to the Cabinet.
He resigned from his positions as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons on 17 March 2003 in protest against the invasion of Iraq. At the time of his death, he was President of the Foreign Policy Centre and a vice-president of the America All Party Parliamentary Group and the Global Security and Non-Proliferation All Party Parliamentary Group.
Robin Cook was born in the County Hospital, Bellshill, Scotland, the only son of Peter and Christina Cook (née Lynch). His father was a chemistry teacher who grew up in Fraserburgh, and his grandfather was a miner before being blacklisted for being involved in a strike.
Cook was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and, from 1960, the Royal High School in Edinburgh. At first, Cook intended to become a Church of Scotland minister, but lost his faith as he discovered politics. He joined the Labour Party in 1965 and became an atheist. He remained so for the rest of his life. He then studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where he obtained an MA with Honours in English Literature. He began studying for a PhD on Charles Dickens and Victorian serial novels, supervised by John Sutherland, but gave it up in 1970.
In 1971, after a period working as a secondary school teacher, Cook became a tutor-organiser of the Workers’ Educational Association for Lothian, and a local councillor in Edinburgh. He gave both up when elected a member of parliament on his 28th birthday, in February 1974.
Cook also worked as a racing tipster in his spare time. He was introduced to horse racing by his wife, Margaret Katherine Whitmore, from Somerset, whom he met whilst at Edinburgh University. They married on 15 September 1969 at St Alban’s Church, Westbury Park, Bristol and had two sons, Peter and Christopher, born in February 1973 and May 1974. Between 1991 and 1998 Cook wrote a weekly tipster’s column for the Glasgow Herald newspaper.
Shortly after he became Foreign Secretary, Cook ended his marriage with Margaret, revealing that he had an extra-marital affair with one of his staff, Gaynor Regan. He announced his intentions to leave his wife and marry another woman via a press statement made at Heathrow on 2 August 1997. Cook was forced into a decision over his private life after a telephone conversation with Alastair Campbell as he was about to go on holiday with his first wife. Campbell explained that the press was about to break the story of his affair with Regan. His estranged wife subsequently accused him of being insensitive during their marriage, of having had several extramarital affairs and alleged he was an alcoholic.
Early years in Parliament
Cook unsuccessfully contested the Edinburgh North constituency in the 1970 general election, but was elected to the House of Commons at the February 1974 general election as Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central, defeating George Foulkes for nomination. When the constituency boundaries were revised for the 1983 general election, he transferred to the new Livingston constituency, beating Tony Benn to the selection, which he represented until his death.
In parliament, he joined the left-wingTribune Group of the Parliamentary Labour Party and frequently opposed the policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. He was an early supporter of constitutional and electoral reform (although he opposed devolution in the 1979 referendum, eventually coming out in favour on election night in 1983), and of efforts to gain more women MPs. He also supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and the abandoning of the Labour Party’s euroscepticism of the 1970s and 1980s. During his early years in parliament Cook championed several liberalising social measures, to mixed effect. He repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) introduced a private member’s bill on divorce reform in Scotland, but succeeded in July 1980 — and after three years’ trying—with an amendment to bring the Scottish law on homosexuality into line with that in England.
After Labour lost power in May 1979 Cook encouraged Michael Foot‘s bid to become party leader and joined his campaign committee. When Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the party’s deputy leadership in September 1981, Cook supported Healey.
He became known as a brilliant parliamentary debater, and rose through the party ranks, becoming a frontbench spokesman in 1980, and reaching the Shadow Cabinet in 1987, as Shadow Social Services Secretary. He was campaign manager for Neil Kinnock‘s successful 1983 bid to become leader of the Labour Party, and was one of the key figures in the modernisation of the Labour Party under Kinnock. He was Shadow Health Secretary (1987–92) and Shadow Trade Secretary (1992–94), before taking on foreign affairs in 1994, the post he would become most identified with (Shadow Foreign Secretary 1994-97, Foreign Secretary 1997-2001).
In 1994, following the death of John Smith, he ruled himself out of contention for the Labour leadership, apparently on the grounds that he was “insufficiently attractive” to be an election winner, although two close family bereavements in the week in which the decision had to be made may have contributed.
Despite his role in modernising the party under Kinnock and Smith, Cook was said to be never fully committed to Blair’s “New Labour” project, considering it a step too far to the right.
On 26 February 1996, following the publication of the Scott Report into the ‘Arms-to-Iraq‘ affair, he made a famous speech in response to the then President of the Board of Trade Ian Lang in which he said “this is not just a Government which does not know how to accept blame; it is a Government which knows no shame”. His parliamentary performance on the occasion of the publication of the five-volume, 2,000-page Scott Report — which he claimed he was given just two hours to read before the relevant debate, thus giving him three seconds to read every page — was widely praised on both sides of the House as one of the best performances the Commons had seen in years, and one of Cook’s finest hours. The government won the vote by a majority of one.
As Joint Chairman (alongside Liberal Democrat MP Robert Maclennan) of the Labour-Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform, Cook brokered the ‘Cook-Maclennan Agreement’ that laid the basis for the fundamental reshaping of the British constitution outlined in Labour’s 1997 General Election manifesto. This led to legislation for major reforms including Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Human Rights Act and removing the majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Others have remained elusive so far, such as a referendum on the electoral system and further House of Lords reform. However, in 2011 voters in the United Kingdom were finally given the chance to have their say on replacing the first-past-the-post voting system with the Alternative Vote method in a referendum held on 5 May. On 6 May it was announced that any proposed move to the AV voting system had been rejected by the minority of the electorate who voted by a margin of 67.9% to 32.1%.
With the election of a Labour government at the 1997 general election, Cook became Foreign Secretary. He was believed to have coveted the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer, but that job was reportedly promised by Tony Blair to Gordon Brown. He announced, to much scepticism, his intention to add “an ethical dimension” to foreign policy.
His term as Foreign Secretary was marked by British interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Both of these were controversial, the former because it was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council, and the latter because of allegations that the British company Sandline International had supplied arms to supporters of the deposed president in contravention of a United Nations embargo. Cook was also embarrassed when his apparent offer to mediate in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was rebuffed. The ethical dimension of his policies was subject to inevitable scrutiny, leading to criticism at times.
He is credited with having helped resolve the eight-year impasse over the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial by getting Libya to agree to hand over the two accused (Megrahi and Fhimah) in 1999, for trial in the neutral venue of the Netherlands but according to Scots law.
In March 1998, a diplomatic rift ensued with Israel when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily cancelled a dinner with Cook, while Cook was visiting Israel and had demonstrated opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements.
Leader of the House of Commons
After the 2001 general election he was moved, against his wishes, from the Foreign Office to be Leader of the House of Commons. This was widely seen as a demotion — although it is a Cabinet post, it is substantially less prestigious than the Foreign Office — and Cook nearly turned it down. In the event he accepted, and looking on the bright side welcomed the chance to spend more time on his favourite stage. According to The Observer, it was Blair’s fears over political battles within the Cabinet over Europe, and especially the euro, which saw him unexpectedly demote the pro-European Cook.
As Leader of the House he was responsible for reforming the hours and practices of the Commons and for leading the debate on reform of the House of Lords. He also spoke for the Government during the controversy surrounding the membership of Commons Select Committees which arose in 2001, where Government whips were accused of pushing aside the outspoken committee chairs Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson. He was President of the Party of European Socialists from May 2001 to April 2004.
In early 2003, during a live television appearance on BBC current affairs show Question Time, he was inadvertently referred to as “Robin Cock” by David Dimbleby. Cook responded with attempted good humour with “Yes, David Bumblebee”, and Dimbleby apologised twice on air for his slip. The episode also saw Cook in the uncomfortable position of defending the Government’s stance over the impending invasion of Iraq, weeks before his resignation over the issue.
He documented his time as Leader of the House of Commons in a widely acclaimed book ‘The Point of Departure’, which discussed in diary form his efforts to reform the House of Lords and to persuade his ministerial colleagues, including Tony Blair, to distance the Labour Government from the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The former Political Editor of Channel 4 News, Elinor Goodman called the book ‘the best insight yet into the workings of the Blair cabinet’, whilst the former Editor of The Observer, Will Hutton, called it ‘the political book of the year – a lucid and compelling insider’s account of the two years that define the Blair Prime Ministership’.
Resignation over Iraq war
In early 2003 he was reported to be one of the cabinet’s chief opponents of military action against Iraq, and on 17 March he resigned from the Cabinet. In a statement giving his reasons for resigning he said, “I can’t accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support.” He also praised Blair’s “heroic efforts” in pushing for the so-called second resolution regarding the Iraq disarmament crisis, but lamented “The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner—not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council”. Cook’s resignation speech in the House of Commons, received with an unprecedented standing ovation by fellow MPs, was described by the BBC‘s Andrew Marr as “without doubt one of the most effective, brilliant, resignation speeches in modern British politics.” Most unusually for the British parliament, Cook’s speech was met with growing applause from all sides of the House (beginning with Labour and Liberal Democrat critics of the war), and from the public gallery. According to The Economist‘s obituary, that was the first speech ever to receive a standing ovation in the history of the House.
Outside the government
After his 2003 resignation from the Cabinet, Cook remained an active backbench Member of Parliament until his death. After leaving the Government, Cook was a leading analyst of the decision to go to war in Iraq, giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which was later relevant during the Hutton and Butler inquiries. He was sceptical of the proposals contained in the Government’s Higher Education Bill, and abstained on its Second Reading. He also took strong positions in favour of both the proposed European Constitution, and a majority-elected House of Lords, about which he said (whilst Leader of the Commons), “I do not see how [the House of Lords] can be a democratic second Chamber if it is also an election-free zone”.
In the years after his exit from the Foreign Office, and particularly since his resignation from the Cabinet, Cook made up with Gordon Brown after decades of personal animosity — an unlikely reconciliation after a mediation attempt by Frank Dobson in the early 1990s had seen Dobson conclude (to John Smith) “You’re right. They hate each other.” Cook and Brown focused on their common political ground, discussing how to firmly entrench progressive politics after the exit of Tony Blair.Chris Smith said in 2005 that in recent years Cook had been setting out a vision of “libertarian, democratic socialism that was beginning to break the sometimes sterile boundaries of ‘old’ and ‘New’ Labour labels.”. With Blair’s popularity waning, Cook campaigned vigorously in the run-up to the 2005 general election to persuade Labour doubters to remain with the party.
In a column for the Guardian four weeks before his death, Cook caused a stir when he described Al-Qaeda as a product of a western intelligence:Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by Western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.
Some commentators and senior politicians said that Cook seemed destined for a senior Cabinet post under a Brown premiership.
In early August 2005, Cook and his wife, Gaynor, took a two-week holiday in the Highlands of Scotland. At around 2:20 pm, on 6 August 2005, whilst walking down Ben Stack in Sutherland, Scotland, Cook suddenly suffered a severe heart attack, collapsed, lost consciousness and fell about 8 ft down a ridge. A helicopter containing paramedics arrived 30 minutes after a 999 call was made. Cook then was flown to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness. Gaynor did not get in the helicopter, and was left to walk down the mountain. Despite efforts made by the medical team to revive Cook in the helicopter, he was already beyond recovery, and at 4:05pm, minutes after arrival at the hospital, was pronounced dead. Two days later, a post mortem revealed that Cook died of hypertensive heart disease.
A funeral service was held on 12 August 2005, at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, even though Cook had been an atheist.Gordon Brown gave the eulogy, and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer was one of the guests. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was on holiday at the time, did not attend. In his speech at the funeral, Cook’s friend, the racing pundit John McCririck, criticised Blair for not attending.
A later memorial service at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on 5 December 2005, included a reading by Tony Blair and warm tributes by Gordon Brown and Madeleine Albright. On 29 September 2005, Cook’s friend and election agent since 1983, Jim Devine, won the resulting by-election with a reduced majority.
In January 2007, a headstone was erected in The Grange, Edinburgh Cemetery, where Cook is buried, bearing the epitaph: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.” It is a reference to Cook’s strong opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the words were reportedly chosen by his widow and two sons from his previous marriage, Chris and Peter.
Here’s a small video of why he could be assassinated by MI6:
“All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, Annajanska